Keep Spending The Money or Not

I once more find myself in that stage where I’m contemplating where to go from here. One of the big issues I’m trying to figure out for myself is if it matters to me to be a fiction writer or not. Or if it’s enough to write non-fiction only. It’s a heart-head fight going on and I’m not sure yet which will win.

But while I’m working through that I ran myself a report that looked at sales by series for March-April-May of this year versus advertising spend, which was 95% AMS ads.

And what’s interesting is that for most of my non-fiction I’m spending about $4 for every $10 I make. There was one that was losing me money that I’d already shut down. And another that was closer to $9 for every $10 I make, but overall it’s about 40% advertising costs.

For my fiction, both fantasy and romance, it’s about $7.50 for every $10 earned. I’m still profitable, but half as profitable with those as I am with the non-fiction.

Which bugs me. But is understandable. More competition means higher advertising costs. And as much as I’d love for the conspiracy theorists to win and drive everyone away from using AMS, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

So it raises the question: Do I keep spending advertising money on low-margin products like the fantasy and romance? Or do I focus my advertising money on high-margin products like the non-fiction?

Both are profitable, which would argue for spending that money because I’m making money even if it’s less per dollar. And it’s not like I spend time on the ads. Maybe ten minutes a day total across all of them, so there’s no added cost in that respect. And it is nice to see things you’ve written sell as opposed to sinking in the rankings.

I guess if I had a finite budget for things and was maxing out that budget with the non-fiction it would be an issue. But I’m not. AMS, the way I use them, only spend so much per title.

So I guess I keep them going. But I do miss those lovely halcyon days before everyone else had discovered AMS and I was spending $2.50 to make $10 on the romance and fantasy novels, too…

Achieve Writing Success Now Live

Remember that book I wasn’t planning on writing but realized how to write while walking my dog? I published it today. It has the oh-so-pretentious title of Achieve Writing Success. (Somehow Thoughts on Self-Publishing or Thoughts on Writing seemed a little too…eh.)

Interestingly, this is a book I have been trying to write in some form or another for a couple of years now. Originally it was going to be Self-Publishing 101. Except I didn’t really want to write a self-publishing 101 book. I know how I do things and I really didn’t want to cover the nitty gritty of all the different options. For example, I formatted my ebooks in Word for the first four years and then switched to Vellum. I had no interest in discussing Cailbre or Sigil or hand-coded HTML. But I felt I would have to if I did a how-to on self-publishing.

So every time I tried to write that book I stopped at about the 10K word mark. Because what I really wanted to share was some thoughts on self-publishing and, as it turns out, publishing in general.

Some of the things I’ve shared here already. Like why self-publishing shouldn’t be considered your Plan B when you fail at trade publishing. Or about how you shouldn’t let someone else control your dreams if it means that much to you to see your book out in the world.

And some I’ve discussed with folks along the way. Like the fact that it’s an error to focus solely on print books if you self-publish or to think in terms of print runs instead of POD.

I originally thought it was going to be for self-publishers but ended up gearing it towards any writer who has at least a novel under their belt, because I think some of the lessons are ones that those still on the trade publishing path really need to consider, too.

Anyway. It’s done now. Phew. No more stopping every six months to try to write a book that isn’t what I really wanted to write but that I feel needs to exist. (The bane of my existence that bad habit of mine of writing books I don’t think will sell but do think should exist.)

Why I Should Never Walk My Dog

First, I have a new release out if anyone is interested in learning Microsoft PowerPoint. Paperback available here and ebook available all over the place.

That meant that yesterday I sat down and asked myself what to write next. I had a total of fourteen non-fiction ideas, nine fantasy series or book ideas, five romance series or book ideas, and a thriller idea.

By the end of the day I’d settled on one of the romance novels and a non-fiction book to work on over the next two months.

And then I took my dog for a walk this morning.

By the end of the walk I had realized I could actually tweak a non-fiction title I’ve started and finished about ten times now and probably finalize and publish it in the next week. So I’m probably going to do that instead.

(This is how I have managed to work almost exclusively on non-fiction for an entire year now. Because non-fiction is so much easier for me to write.)

I really should know better by now…

Release Fast, Stay Focused. Or Not.

It came up in an advice thread on Kboards today and it came up at that conference this weekend, too, so I figured I’d also weigh in on this idea that you have to release quickly and in the same subgenre if you want to make money at self-publishing.

It’s just not true.

I want to try to unpack this from a few different angles.

First, the book is the core.  What you write and how much it connects with readers drives everything. The more you write a book that readers want to read the better you will do at any type of publishing. And if you hit that target well enough, frequency of release is not going to matter as much.

(In the trade publishing world just look at George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss.)

A book that readers love will get steady sales for years. Because those readers will tell other readers about that book. And if it’s an evergreen sort of title it’ll continue to appeal to new readers as they find it.

So if you have a choice between writing a mediocre title and a great title, write the great title. It’s much more likely to sell itself and to continue to sell for a longer period of time.

Second, yes, there are factors that skew in favor of frequent releases. The Amazon algorithm is one of the biggies. Amazon makes it much harder to sell a book that’s more than 90 days old. They like new and shiny and they don’t care what that does for an author’s income.

Not to mention that more books equals more organic visibility. And more bites at the apple. More chances to connect with a reader who will then go read your other books.

If you find a reader who loves you it’s hard to keep their attention. None of us (or at least almost none of us) write so fast that we can be the only source of books for a reader. But if you’re releasing frequently the reader will see your next book is out before they forget about you.

So there is absolutely a benefit to releasing faster.

Third, yes, keeping a narrow focus will help. If readers liked A from you, chances are they want more of it not B or C or D. China Mieville is about the only author I can think of who really gets away with writing across the board and keeping my attention. That’s because I read him for his ideas not the type of story he’s telling. But, for example, when Anne McCaffrey decided to stop writing about dragons and started writing about a unicorn girl in space she only kept my attention for two books and then I moved on. Same with other authors I liked who then moved on to writing a different kind of book.

Readers like what they like. They attach to a story world or a character and that’s all they want from you. Or a feeling. (I’m thinking Nora Roberts here who my mom has historically bought without hesitation who recently wrote a post-apocalyptic book my mom tried and hated and then a school shooting book my mom wouldn’t even buy.)

So, yes, writing fast and giving readers more of what they already liked are ideal as long as you can maintain quality.

But what a lot of this advice ignores is that writers are human. We’re not machines that can just crank out the same but different thing over and over again. I said in that comment thread today that if I had to do that I’d just go back to consulting. Take away my freedom to create and change direction and you’ve taken away a large part of the reason I do this.

And some writers who try to do the write a book a month thing can’t do it. Maybe for a year. Maybe two. But not forever. They burn out. They have to step back. And because (and no insults meant here) most of the rapid release model requires more simplistic plotting approaches most of those books are not evergreen books. They’re cotton candy not Lindt chocolates. (Most, not all.)

By that I mean people will buy your brand of cotton candy if it’s there and available but they won’t think twice about buying a different brand of cotton candy if yours isn’t there. Whereas people who like Lindt brand chocolate are going to go out of their way to find more of it. Which means that if you choose to follow the rapid release model when you stop producing you stop earning.

Now, the question is, can you make money if you don’t follow the release fast, stay focused model?

Most will answer no. They’ll argue that you just get buried and no one will ever find you.

My reply is “define make money.”

March of this year I grossed close to $4K and netted close to $2K. It’s about the equivalent of $12.50 an hour for a forty-hour-a-week job. A lot of people live on that much. Hell, people raise families on that much. So for many that would qualify as making money.

(It’s not where I want to be, but it’s not nothing.)

That was without having released any new title since December. And while one title was about half of that my top five titles for that period were two non-fiction titles, two romances, and a fantasy novel written under three different pen names, the most recent of which was six months old at that point and the oldest of which was released in 2014.

It’s not easy to take the path I have. And it’s probably not the path to making a million a year, but with enough time I could see earning six figures a year this way.

So for those of you like me who write a variety of things (or who write slowly) and know that writing the same thing and publishing a novel once a month would destroy you, take heart.

(And for those of you who are, rightly, pointing out that non-fiction is part of why I’m where I am right now, let me say that there are authors out there who have done well with slow releases of fiction, too. They hit a sweet spot and took off. It’s possible. And I’ll also add that I would’ve never gotten to where I am right now if I weren’t the type to write whatever pops into my head because my best-seller is not something I thought would sell.)

And one final thought: If you are going to follow the slow path, I recommend focusing on novels and/or non-fiction. And not doing long series unless your books take off. Trilogies are a nice compromise there. They’re meaty enough to draw readers in but not so long you spend years writing something readers don’t want to read. (Refer back to my first point that the book is the core.)

Thoughts on Video Courses

I promised that at some point after I’d finished my foray into video courses that I’d share some thoughts about it in case anyone else was considering that path. And since I just published the fifth of five video courses I’d resolved to publish this year (Creating a Paperback Cover Using GIMP) I figured now was a good time for that.

So without further ado…

I enjoyed the process of making the videos.

One, it turns out I’m someone who likes to learn new things and take on new challenges and creating video courses let me indulge that side of my personality while still feeling like I was doing something somewhat related to all my other publishing efforts.

Two, even though I was sitting in what was essentially a padded room (my walk-in closet full of sound-deadening materials), it was nice to feel like I was talking to people. I work from home, I live alone, I don’t go out much, so most of my conversations are with my mom or my dog.  Feeling like I was sharing something I knew with others was nice. And doing the videos felt more tangible that way than writing the books does.

(And it had the added perk that it wasn’t an actual conversation which can involve disagreement and pushback…What can I say? I have issues.)

Three, the subjects I covered in the courses, Excel and AMS, both lend themselves to a visual presentation. It’s not easy to use just words and pictures to convey something like Pivot Tables to people. But being able to say “Here. See?” and show that to someone is easier. One of the three main ways people learn is through observation. Through watching someone else do something. So video formats lend themselves to teaching.

So that was all good. And I’m proud of the products I put out there. I think they were well done if I may say so myself. Perfect? No. But good. Worth watching.

Where I hit a roadblock was on the marketing/advertising/payment side of things.

There are a number of online options for posting video classes like this.

Youtube is an obvious option. But if you don’t have at least 1,000 followers you can’t share in the ad revenue for your class so you’re just doing it for the love.

There are a number of other options out there like Teachable and Ruzuku where you can post your videos and then drive traffic to your page, but they cost somewhere around $75 per month to use so that’s a pretty significant capital commitment for potentially no return.

Udemy, the one I went with, is free and has a large pre-existing audience that goes there to find courses.

The problem I didn’t recognize with Udemy is that they always, always, always have a sale going. So I posted my first course, the AMS one, for $99.99 with an intention of offering it for half-off here on my blog and elsewhere. But because I’d signed up for their promos it was immediately put on sale for $14.99. Which meant I couldn’t exactly be offering it to people at a new release discount of $49.99 like I’d intended.

I pulled my classes from their promos, but that damage was already done.

For the AMS class and Excel for Self-Publishers not being in their promos is probably fine. Most people who find those classes are going to do so from my website or books and be willing to pay what the classes are worth.

But with Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel I think it may be an impossible sell. Those who are on Udemy are going to see thethe ultra mega everything you ever wanted to know about Excel class for $9.99 next to my Excel class for $99.99. Granted, mine has subtitles that actually make sense and aren’t auto-generated. And maybe I can teach the material better or without creepy mouth sounds in the background. But unless someone comes looking for me and my course in particular I don’t see myself selling those courses on that site because of the price difference. And even driving traffic there might not work because of that, because even with a half off coupon that’s still a pretty big gap in what someone would have to pay.

Now, I could just throw in the towel and say, fine, sign me up for your promos. But if I do that I will be earning less per class sold than I do on each book I sell. And I just can’t bring myself to be okay with that.

Not to mention the fact that Udemy makes you put all of the classes under an account into their promos. You can’t choose which ones go in. It’s all or nothing. And I don’t need to put the AMS class on their promos for it to sell.

(That’s why I now have two Udemy accounts, so I could sign the mini courses on Excel up for their promos while leaving my AMS course out of them. But I’d already published the two main Excel courses on the same account as the AMS class and don’t want to move 150+ videos to a new account at this point.)

So this all left me at a crossroads. I enjoyed making the courses. I have about five or six more I could do. But in order to really make it work I think I’d either have to move to a different platform and spend a lot of time learning new advertising options like Google AdWords or I’d have to bite the bullet and enroll in Udemy’s promos. I’m not sure I’m willing to do either one.

The courses are there. Discount codes are available here (and in the back of the related books–that’s the best discount code for each class, the ones for people who already read the material and now just want a visual version to help reinforce it). I am trying a few ways to advertise them, so I haven’t quit entirely. But I think it’s just too different a platform for me to leverage easily without a massive amount of additional effort I’m not interested in putting in at this point.

(Also, it kind of creeped me out that every time I published a class I either received a private message offering to sell me fake reviews on my course and/or a message from some stranger saying they really liked the look of my class and would I please send them a free link to take the course. Udemy seems to not have caught on to the damage that fake reviews can do.)

So there you have it. I won’t rule out doing something more with video courses in the future, but for now I’m turning back to books where I at least know the basics of advertising them and how the market works.

This I Know…

Right now I’m trying to decide what the next new project should be. Those three or four more Excel titles I could write? That new romance novel? That new fantasy series? Maybe a MG fantasy that I’d sub to trade publishers? A domestic suspense thriller? (Because you can never have too many names, right? Ha!)

Each has its pluses and minuses. Write more to market and maybe see much higher sales. Write something you know will sell but at a more modest level and you’ve added one more brick in the wall of steady long-term success.

Which do you choose? The guaranteed $10 payout or the 10% chance at a $100 payout?

I don’t know. Which is why I’m sitting here doing nothing. (Although I did just hit publish on a mini video course about an hour ago, so not nothing nothing. Just a little bit of nothing now that that’s pending approval.)

And what if it’s a choice between a $10 payout and a 50% chance at a $50 payout or a 50% chance at a $5,000 payout? Do I really know what the odds and payouts even are in all those different choices?

(No.)

This is what I know: If I do nothing, nothing will happen. Zero action means zero payout. So it’s better to pick a direction and go in it than to sit still and do nothing because I can’t decide.

So enough. Time to act. Maybe I’ll just break out the old D&D dice and roll the six-sided one. That’s always a healthy way to make life choices isn’t it?

On Authority and Authenticity

First, a quick note. AMS Ads for Authors is now Easy AMS Ads. With the ebook I just changed it over, but for the paperback I had to publish a new version, so don’t go getting confused and buying it twice.

It seemed the best thing to do since the Dawson course seems to have been rebranded as Ads for Authors, including a module on AMS Ads for Authors. Not to mention that someone much wiser than me recently pointed out that I was burying the lede with the prior title.

So, rebranded. Done.

And it’s the AMS book and video course that have had me thinking a lot lately about this issue of being an authority on a subject and how you also maintain authenticity at the same time.

For me, the Excel books and courses are easy that way. I know Excel. Every single professional job I’ve had since college when people wanted to do something in Excel I was that person they asked about how to do it. Or when something went wrong I was the one to fix it. So I have no hesitation claiming authority when it comes to day-to-day use of Excel. I know it.

AMS is a different beast. I’m comfortable with explaining the mechanics of how you start an ad and what the differences are between SP and PD ads. That’s easy to do. I’m even comfortable explaining how I use the ads. And I absolutely have told new writers who aren’t seeing a lot of sales that the ads are worth running and believe that 100%.

I feel confident and would stand behind everything I’ve said in Easy AMS Ads.

Where I get a little hesitant is in putting myself out there as some sort of ultimate authority on the ads. Given the fact that this is Amazon we’re dealing with it seems supremely arrogant for me to claim I’ve cracked the code to AMS and that everyone should listen to me and do things the way I do them and only that way.

And it’s not realistic to think that things will stay static that way. Even if I believed that I had cracked their code today, there is no certainty that I could still say that tomorrow. As I mention in the video course, this is a blind auction system with millions of participants and unknown relevancy factors at play that are subject to change at Amazon’s whim. And that’s before you try to account for changing consumer behaviors.

So it’s tricky. I recommend the ads today, but will I feel that way tomorrow?

A few folks have recently urged me to be more aggressive with pushing the AMS book and video course. And I can see the argument for it. I wrote the book out of a place of frustration with things people were saying about AMS and I still have that sense of frustration when I see people talk about AMS as if they’re the most complicated, insane, involved ads out there.

They don’t have to be. You just have to remember the serenity prayer and accept that you can’t control it all or know it all but if you’re making money at running them then yay. And so I can see the value in pushing the book and course more than I do to reach those people who could benefit from the ads if they’d just see past the angst and drama.

But building too much of a reputation on AMS ads seems like a shaky foundation to me. I want to be able to call it one day and say, “Nope. Done. Not working anymore.” And I want to be able to do that without hesitating because I’m earning good money off of selling people on using the ads.

For me it’s an issue of authenticity. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m lying to people to make money. It’s damned easy to do, but it’s not who I want to be. So the book and the course are out there and I stand behind them and may even do a few things to push them more than I have, but don’t expect me to build my empire on AMS ads.

I don’t think I’m suited to it.